Charles John Huffam Dickens was born 200 years ago today, February 7, 1812. He was an English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period. Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity and fame than had any previous author during his lifetime, and he remains popular, having been responsible for some of English literature's most iconic novels and characters. Known for such classics as A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, sadly, most high school students know less about him than they do Shakespeare.
At a time when Britain was the major economic and political power of the world, Dickens highlighted the life of the forgotten poor and disadvantaged within society. Through his journalism he campaigned on specific issues - such as sanitation and the workhouse - but his fiction probably demonstrated its greatest prowess in changing public opinion in regard to class inequalities. He often depicted the exploitation and oppression of the poor and condemned the public officials and institutions that not only allowed such abuses to exist, but flourished as a result.
His writings inspired others, in particular journalists and political figures, to address such problems of class oppression. For example, the prison scenes in The Pickwick Papers are claimed to have been influential in having the Fleet Prison shut down. As Karl Marx said, Dickens, and the other novelists of Victorian England, "...issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together...".
Dickens lived much of what he wrote about. Due to financial difficulties, John Dickens, Charles' father, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison in Southwark, London in 1824. Shortly afterwards, the rest of his family joined him – except 12-year-old Charles, who was boarded with family friend Elizabeth Roylance in Camden Town. Mrs. Roylance was "a reduced [impoverished] old lady, long known to our family", whom Dickens later immortalized, "with a few alterations and embellishments", as "Mrs. Pipchin", in Dombey and Son. Later, he lived in a "back-attic...at the house of an insolvent-court agent...in Lant Street in The Borough...he was a fat, good-natured, kind old gentleman, with a quiet old wife"; and he had a very innocent grown-up son; these three were the inspiration for the Garland family in The Old Curiosity Shop.
On Sundays, Dickens and his sister Frances ("Fanny") were allowed out from the Royal Academy of Music and spent the day at the Marshalsea. (Dickens later used the prison as a setting in Little Dorrit). To pay for his board and to help his family, Dickens was forced to leave school and began working ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, on Hungerford Stairs, near the present Charing Cross railway station. He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on blacking (boot polish). The strenuous – and often cruel – work conditions made a deep impression on Dickens, and later influenced his fiction and essays, forming the foundation of his interest in the reform of socio-economic and labor conditions, the rigors of which he believed were unfairly borne by the poor. He would later write that he wondered "how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age."
Righteous anger stemming from his own situation and the conditions under which working-class people lived became major themes of his works, and it was this unhappy period in his youth to which he alluded in his favorite, and most autobiographical, novel, David Copperfield: "I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to heaven!"
Dickens worked at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore, attorneys, of Holborn Court, Gray's Inn, as a junior clerk from May 1827 to November 1828. Then, having learned Gurneys system of shorthand in his spare time, he left to become a freelance reporter. A distant relative, Thomas Charlton, was a freelance reporter at Doctors' Commons, and Dickens was able to share his box there to report the legal proceedings for nearly four years. This education informed works such as Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and especially Bleak House - whose vivid portrayal of the machinations and bureaucracy of the legal system did much to enlighten the general public, and was a vehicle for dissemination of Dickens's own views regarding, particularly, the heavy burden on the poor who were forced by circumstances to "go to law".
In 1830, Dickens met his first love, Maria Beadnell, thought to have been the model for the character Dora in David Copperfield. Maria's parents disapproved of the courtship and effectively ended the relationship by sending her to school in Paris. Dickens married Catherine Hogarth and 1836 and they had ten children. They separated in 1858.
In May 1846 Angela Burdett Coutts, heir to the Coutts banking fortune, approached Dickens about setting up a home for the redemption of "fallen" women. Coutts envisioned a home that would differ from existing institutions, which offered harsh and punishing regimes for these women, and instead provide an environment where they could learn to read and write and become proficient in domestic household chores so as to re-integrate them into society. After initially resisting, Dickens eventually founded the home, named "Urania Cottage", in the Lime Grove section of Shepherds Bush. He became involved in many aspects of its day-to-day running, setting the house rules, reviewing the accounts and interviewing prospective residents, some of whom became characters in his books. He would scour prisons and workhouses for potentially suitable candidates and relied on friends, such as the Magistrate John Hardwick, to bring them to his attention. Each potential candidate was given a printed invitation written by Dickens called ‘An Appeal to Fallen Women’, which he signed only as ‘Your friend’. If the woman accepted the invitation, Dickens would personally interview her for admission. All of the women were required to emigrate following their time at Urania Cottage. It is estimated that about 100 women graduated between 1847 and 1859.
On June 8, 1870, Dickens suffered a stroke at his home, after a full day's work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The next day he died at Gad's Hill Place, never having regained consciousness. Contrary to his wish to be buried at Rochester Cathedral "in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner," he was laid to rest in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. A printed epitaph circulated at the time of the funeral reads: "To the Memory of Charles Dickens (England's most popular author) who died at his residence, Higham, near Rochester, Kent, 9 June 1870, aged 58 years. He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world." Dickens's last words, as reported in his obituary in The Times were alleged to have been:
“Be natural my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”
Dickens continues to be one of the best known and most read of English authors, and his works have never gone out of print. At least 180 motion pictures and TV adaptations based on Dickens's works help confirm his success. Many of his works were adapted for the stage during his own lifetime and as early as 1913 a silent film of The Pickwick Papers was made.
There are many ways to celebrate Dickens' birthday. You can start by reading any of his novels. Doing so will prove Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin wrong. One of Dickens’ leading biographers, Tomalin has created a bit of a stir by suggesting that new generations of readers don’t have the attention span necessary to read Dickens. In an interview with the Press Association, Tomalin said, “Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans, and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel, and I think that’s a pity.” “Today’s children have very short attention spans,” the biogreapher added, “because they are being reared on dreadful television programs which are flickering away in the corner.”
You can join many other who have tried and finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood. No, not finish reading it, but finish writing it. The manuscript was incomplete when Dickens died in 1870. Mystery writer Gwyneth Hughes has been quoted as saying, “What’s less well known is that Dickens died on purpose – to avoid having to finish it,” about her frustration at trying to write a script for an ending. There have been numerous attempts by other writers to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, including one by a man from Vermont in 1873 who claimed that he came up with his ending by communicating with Dickens’ spirit. In 1914, English mystery writer G.K. Chesterton set up a mock trial to solve the whodunit. And in the 1980s, there was even a Broadway musical, Drood.
Rent a movie adaptation of his works.
Cook a dish from the time period, or something inspired from reading one of his stories. A mention was made in David Copperfield about an Irish stew, for example.
There are many museums and festivals that honor the spirit of Charles Dickens. My favorite, and one you cannot visit today but must wait until December, is Dickens on the Strand in Galveston, Texas. Dickens on The Strand is a holiday festival held on the first weekend in December since 1974, where bobbies, Beefeaters and the "Queen" herself are on hand to recreate the Victorian London of Charles Dickens. Many festival volunteers and attendees dress in Victorian attire and bring the world of Dickens to life.
Whatever you choose to do today, remember that Dickens brought attention to child poverty, over-population, environmental degradation and greed — all still relevant issues today. He was a man of his times and yet a forward thinker. Introduce him to a few who may not know too much about him.